We nominated Google for the 2003
U.S. corporate Big Brother of the Year


Privacy International accepted nominations during February 2003.
The winner will be announced in March and the award presented at the
Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference, April 1-4, in New York City.
1.   Google's immortal cookie:
Google was the first search engine to use a cookie that expires in 2038. This was at a time when federal websites were prohibited from using persistent cookies altogether. Now it's years later, and immortal cookies are commonplace among search engines; Google set the standard because no one bothered to challenge them. This cookie places a unique ID number on your hard disk. Anytime you land on a Google page, you get a Google cookie if you don't already have one. If you have one, they read and record your unique ID number.

2.   Google records everything they can:
For all searches they record the cookie ID, your Internet IP address, the time and date, your search terms, and your browser configuration. Increasingly, Google is customizing results based on your IP number. This is referred to in the industry as "IP delivery based on geolocation."

3.   Google retains all data indefinitely:
Google has no data retention policies. There is evidence that they are able to easily access all the user information they collect and save.

4.   Google won't say why they need this data:
Inquiries to Google about their privacy policies are ignored. When the New York Times (2002-11-28) asked Sergey Brin about whether Google ever gets subpoenaed for this information, he had no comment.

5.   Google hires spooks:
Matt Cutts, a key Google engineer, used to work for the National Security Agency. Google wants to hire more people with security clearances, so that they can peddle their corporate assets to the spooks in Washington.

6.   Google's toolbar is spyware:
With the advanced features enabled, Google's free toolbar for Explorer phones home with every page you surf. Yes, it reads your cookie too, and sends along the last search terms you used in the toolbar. Their privacy policy confesses this, but that's only because Alexa lost a class-action lawsuit when their toolbar did the same thing, and their privacy policy failed to explain this. Worse yet, Google's toolbar updates to new versions quietly, and without asking. This means that if you have the toolbar installed, Google essentially has complete access to your hard disk every time you phone home. Most software vendors, and even Microsoft, ask if you'd like an updated version. But not Google.

7.   Google's cache copy is illegal:
Judging from Ninth Circuit precedent on the application of U.S. copyright laws to the Internet, Google's cache copy appears to be illegal. The only way a webmaster can avoid having his site cached on Google is to put a "noarchive" meta in the header of every page on his site. Surfers like the cache, but webmasters don't. Many webmasters have deleted questionable material from their sites, only to discover later that the problem pages live merrily on in Google's cache. The cache copy should be "opt-in" for webmasters, not "opt-out."

8.   Google is not your friend:
Young, stupid script kiddies and many bloggers still think Google is "way kool," so by now Google enjoys a 75 percent monopoly for all external referrals to most websites. No webmaster can avoid seeking Google's approval these days, assuming he wants to increase traffic to his site. If he tries to take advantage of some of the known weaknesses in Google's semi-secret algorithms, he may find himself penalized by Google, and his traffic disappears. There are no detailed, published standards issued by Google, and there is no appeal process for penalized sites. Google is completely unaccountable. Most of the time they don't even answer email from webmasters.

9.   Google is a privacy time bomb:
With 150 million searches per day, most from outside the U.S., Google amounts to a privacy disaster waiting to happen. Those newly-commissioned data-mining bureaucrats in Washington can only dream about the sort of slick efficiency that Google has already achieved.


Addendum, March 2, 2003:



And then there were four:
Why we target Google

The points above were accessed by some 80,000 Internet users during the month of February 2003, according to our logs. Now that the nominations have closed for Privacy International's corporate U.S. Big Brother of 2003 award, and the bloggers, with the attention span of toddlers, have moved on to other issues, it's time to step back and ask, "Why does this site target Google?"

Google is one of about four search engines that matter. There are many more than four engines, but only about four have the technology to crawl most of the web on a regular basis. Alltheweb (now owned by Overture) does the best overall crawling, followed by Google and then Inktomi (now owned by Yahoo). Google's bizarre crawling can be unfair for large sites with low or average PageRank. They may not get to many of the pages each month on such sites, even though by the end of that crawl Google is grabbing pages in spasms, at a rate of several per second. Then the next month Google's crawlers start all over again and do the exact same thing.

Of these top three crawlers, Alltheweb has the smallest number of users in the U.S. Many webmasters wouldn't notice if Alltheweb disappeared -- despite the fact that they have good technology, both for crawling and for searching. Hopefully Overture can do something with Alltheweb and AltaVista (which they also bought last month). While AltaVista has good search technology, their crawling is extremely poor. Now with both under the same roof, Overture has the assets it needs to compete.

Yahoo has never done any crawling. Their purchase of Inktomi last month makes them potentially competitive as well, and perhaps a year from now they may rely less on Google for their results. Inktomi provides the algorithmic results for MSN, but even so, their market share is less than one-third of Google's. Microsoft might never be a competitor because they don't have the technology to crawl or search the web. They have the money to buy anything, of course, but the last thing they'd want to buy is something like Google's network, which uses some 15,000 cheap Linux boxes. It is hard to imagine Microsoft's software scaling reliably to this level, and we don't even count them.

That gives us Google, Yahoo, and Overture. The last one worth watching is Teoma/AskJeeves. Their search technology is good, and they have begun to expand their crawl. It remains to be seen how deeply and consistently they will be able to crawl websites with thousands of pages.

Google is easily top dog. They provide about 75 percent of the external referrals for most websites. There is no point in putting up a website apart from Google. It's do or die with Google. If we're all very lucky, one of the other three will offer some competition within several years. If we're not lucky, we will be uploading our websites to Google's servers by then, much like the bloggers do at blogger.com (which was bought by Google last month). It would mean the end of the web as we know it.

It is worthwhile to understand the pressures that the average, independent webmaster is under. And given that Google is so dominant, it's important to understand the pressures that are being brought to bear on Google, Inc. It does not take too much imagination to recognize that there's a struggle going on for the soul of the web, and the focal point of this struggle is Google itself.

At one level, it's a struggle for advertising revenue. The pundits look at only this level, and they are unanimous that the only advertising model on the web with any sort of future is one where little ads appear after being triggered by keyword searches, or by the non-ad content of the page. For example, a search for "Google Watch" may show some ads on the right side of the screen for wrist watches. Everyone wants a piece of this new wave in web advertising. Google is very profitable now, and is even having growing pains.

At another level, it's a struggle over who will have the predominant influence over the massive amounts of user data that Google collects. In the past, discussions about privacy issues and the web have been about consumer protection. That continues to be of interest, but since 9/11 there is a new threat to privacy -- the federal government. Google has not shown any inclination to declare for the rights of its users across the globe, as opposed to the rights of the spies in Washington who would love to have access to Google's user data.

Much of the struggle at this new level is unarticulated. For one thing, the spies in Washington don't talk about it. Congress has given them new powers, without debating the issues. Google, Inc. itself never comments about things that matter, and as a private corporation is largely unaccountable. The struggle recognized by Google Watch has to do with the clash of real forces, but right now all we can say is that potentially this struggle could manifest itself in Google's boardroom:



The privacy struggle, which includes both the old issue of consumer protection and this new issue of government surveillance, means that the question of how Google treats the data it collects from users becomes critical. Given that Google is so central to the web, whatever attitude it takes toward privacy has massive implications for the rest of the web in general, and for other search engines in particular.

Call it class warfare, if you like. Because that brings up the other major gripe that Google Watch has with Google. That's the PageRank problem -- the fact that Google's primary ranking algorithm has less to do with the quality of web pages, than it has to do with the "power popularity" of web pages. Their approach to ranking is anti-democratic, in that already-powerful pages are mathematically granted extra power to anoint other pages as powerful.

It's not that we believe Google is evil. What we believe is that Google, Inc. is at a fork in the road, and they have some big decisions to make. This Google Watch site is trying to articulate, publicize, and even dramatize the situation at Google, and encourage more scrutiny of their operations. By doing this, we hope to play a small part in maintaining the web as an information tool that is more useful for the masses, than it is for the elites.